Last Thursday, my Facebook feed alerted me to a fascinating piece of investigative journalism, published the previous day by The Atlantic. The article details Ariel Sabar’s exposure of the provenance of a Coptic papyrus that, some say, proves that Jesus was married. Sabar demonstrates that it is almost certainly a fake.
This artifact was dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” by Karen King, who staked much of her professional reputation on it. King, an authority on early Christianity and Gnosticism who holds the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard—the oldest endowed chair at our nation’s oldest university—had announced the discovery of this papyrus at a 2012 Coptic conference in Rome. She published the results of her study of the papyrus two years later in the Harvard Theological Review, a first-tier, peer-reviewed journal of religious studies. If the papyrus turned out to be a forgery, the revelation might be discrediting for King and for others who lent it credence. (As King herself said, “If it’s a forgery … it’s a career breaker.”)
King, however, is not the focus of Sabar’s article. Sabar investigated the seller of the artifact—a shady German fellow named Walter Fritz, whose varied exploits and proclivities make the characters in the Da Vinci Code seem downright conventional. A university dropout and part-time pornographer, Fritz managed to fabricate a Gnostic artifact that duped one of the world’s leading experts on early, extra-canonical Christianity, plus enough of her peers to satisfy the Harvard Theological Review. How did this happen? Perhaps the appeal of Gnosticism, for a certain type of scholar, made this artifact too good to check.
I wrote about this piece of fiction when King first introduced the story. The point of this comment is not about King or her scholarship (or lack thereof) or even about the shady past of Walter Fritz who apparently foisted this fake upon us. Rather, my point is about the last line of the quote -- that the appeal of Gnosticism is to great to be avoided. That is a profound statement of the too often ignored obvious.
That there are two sacred dogmas common to both Gnosticism and liberalism is surely not in doubt: on the one hand, the official story of Jesus is a pernicious lie and a ruse; and on the other hand, we modern people with our scholarship armed with the toolkit of archaeology, philology, and hermeneutical suspicion, can uncover the real story, the truth long hidden by a conspiracy against it through the ministrations both of church and state (read that Constantine).
Everything from The DaVinci Code to this Gospel of Jesus' wife and a history of modern skepticism about the identity of Jesus and the story of Jesus enshrined in the New Testament is born of these two sacred presuppositions against which nothing must be allowed to stand. Everything from Bart Ehrman to the whole character of liberal, university based Biblical scholarship is indebted to this unhealthy nod to any artifact or historical invention that may challenge orthodox Christianity and this deeply rooted suspicion of the historicity and factual veracity of the Scriptures.
Now the problem is not just with what happens at the university behind closed doors but the creep of doubt and fear that have transfixed much of Protestant and Roman Catholic thinking on the Bible even from those in the pews. Our people have come, over time, to believe that the skeptics are correct -- the Bible we have now has a shaky history, the Jesus which they problem is largely unknowable from the Bible, and the Bible has been a tool in the arms of both church and state in order to manipulate what people think and do. So what are we left with? Not much. Individual reason and the supremacy of mind over the Word of God, a willingness to believe that Christianity is only true in so far as every religion and any religion is true, and an ease with which one may write off, ignore, and dispute what has always been believed, taught, and confessed by Christians.
This is one of the reasons why the young routinely disregard Christian teaching with respect to sex, marriage, children, and the morality of family. They find no conflict in listening to the Bible when it teaches love, acceptance, and forgiveness while disregarding what it says about extra-marital sex, homosexuality, and abortion. We have taught them well. The scholar is always true and the Scriptures are only partially true (true when scholarship says they are correct and suspicious of everything else). The chickens have come home to roost. Gnosticism and liberalism have led us to the point where they are irresistible and where the Scriptures can summarily be discounted as either unreliable or irrelevant. That said, we are willing participants in the deception, choosing the illusion of trustworthiness over the authentic truth.
When the secular intelligentsia falls prey to the same kind of credulity and intellectual flaccidity more frequently associated with the ecclesiastical community, the intelligentsia and its media arm pause for a minute, then move on.
Both the tellers of the tale and those who love to hear it would have to move too much mental furniture in order to see that the markers of our modern world—the care for truth, the sanctity of the individual, the siding with victims—derive from Christianity, indeed from canonical, orthodox Christianity. It is of course the fault of traditional Christianity that it has too often forgotten how radical the canonical Gospels are. But Fritz’s forgery, toward which King was so credulous, would merely have delivered us a mythic Christianity that was still less radical, even if more to our liking.